Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Art of Classroom Management

I recently had my final evaluation for the school year. I was a little nervous, because it was only my second day with this group of students, we have new administration this year, and I am in the midst of art show season; which means that on observation day I was running short on time, sleep, and patience. At my follow up meeting this morning, the comment that was made by my principal was that it was almost creepy how well behaved my students were. I don't want to toot my own horn here; each new class is a mixed bag, and I often feel out how the quarter will go as it goes along, just like they do. He closed with the comment that "none of the recommendations or concerns from last year were anywhere on the radar at any time this year; I am curious what you are doing differently."

Well, so am I.

I had thought that last year's evaluations were great, especially in my first year as an educator, so of course the first thing I did was head up to my classroom, open up my file cabinet, and pour over each evaluation report in order, looking for clues to piece together my professional self. And somewhere in all that text, I found the subtle hints that point to classroom management "water running, girls whispering, 2 seconds pause..." Many of my lessons were the same as this year. The script of my voice varied very little, which actually surprised me because even though I plan out my lessons in detail in advance, I often feel as though my delivery is a little 'fly by the seat of my pants' in style. But what was different was the change in student behavior; a variable I once felt I had very little control over. So what gives? Art teachers are artists outside the classroom, but we are also artists in the classroom. We are consistently redesigning the art of teaching. Some things work, some don't, but in the end, our classrooms are performance art. So what have I revamped between then and now:

I personalize my approach:
I know my kids. Yes, I said my kids, not my students. I don't teach to them, I teach with them. We are learning together. I try every chance I get to let them know I get them. Except for when I don't. And in that case, I ask questions. I hand out a questionnaire on the first day of each class. I have modified the questions over time. I actually read the responses. When I’m feeling ambitious, I type them up in an Excel spreadsheet to get a feel for the personality of the individuals within the class and the class as a whole before we begin.

I challenge each student to tell me one thing that makes them unique. I had trouble with that when I was a teenager, too, and I feel like if I had one teacher who told me how important it was to know and recognize something special about myself, it would have made a difference. I ask their favorite color. I ask why. I ask about their thoughts on music in the classroom. They make compelling arguments in both directions. More about that later.

I let them see the future:
Who doesn't want to know what happens next. I don't give away all my secrets on day one, but I give them a general big picture of what they can expect of me and what I expect of them. I tell them why. I tell them how I grade. No, it has nothing to do with your love of this class, your talent in art, whether you have the same favorite color as me, or whether you were born on a Tuesday. Grading art and understanding art grades is mystifying to most. Yes, it's subjective. I don't grade art, I grade learning. Regardless of your interest, talent, or love of the subject, you are here to learn new concepts, new ideas, and to grow in some way. I know that this has happened when you demonstrate it to me. I have the same rubric for every assignment that helps me evaluate this. It's consistent. More on that one later, too.

I have common sense rules. Be responsible. (Show up on time, take care of the materials, do the right thing.) Be respectful. (I won't talk over you, so please don't talk over me.) And Be Positive. (You may not like what we're doing, but you're sure to like it even less if you drag us all down by complaining about it. Give it a try and then move on.) I have this all typed up in a document that they bring home and have signed by a parent and returned to me. I know it sounds harsh and strict, but I explain that I don't do this to give them more paperwork or to set them up for a reason to have detention if it isn’t returned. My reasoning is plain and simple: So we are all on the same page. If I have to call Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so to explain that Johnny has a written assignment about Impressionism, rather than a painting, because he painted his hands instead of the paper and chose to leave a trail from here to his locker, Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So already know who I am and why I am calling. When I reason with them in a way they can understand, they usually respond.

I have a routine that works:
Last year we were encouraged to use activators and summarizers in every classroom. I understand this is a great way to make learning bell-to-bell, but with only 48 minutes in the art room, I need every minute I can get if I want to offer meaningful hands on art making. Last year, I also taught in the morning. This year, each and every one of my classes happens immediately after that group has had lunch, so if I didn't understand the need for activators last year, boy do I ever understand them now. Spending 10 minutes of class doing busywork on paper felt like a waste of time, paper, and focus to me, so I did some research. I'm really turning my focus to creativity this year, and its importance not just in the art room, but in life, so I thought that any extra activity should help foster creativity. http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/03/the-creativity-crisis-why-american-schools-need-design/73038/ If all a student leaves my classroom with is an increased ability to use his or her imagination and apply critical thinking skills to his or her science lab, math test, or ELA report, I've been at least somewhat successful here.

So we start every class with 5 minutes of silent drawing time. This works regular as clockwork. I have a massive timer set to 5 minutes on my Smartboard, paper by the door for them to pick up as they enter, and on the board under the date, I have the word "observation", "memory", or "imagination". They know that when the timer starts, talking stops. My lessons may be structured with a desired end result, but this drawing is theirs. It is their time to transition from the cafeteria to the classroom, and to explore drawing that no one will look at, within unstructured parameters. The only rule is to use the prompt, and to keep at it for 5 minutes. I have one student pass out little neon sticky notes as silent reminders to stay on task, and their "sketchbooks", which are folded construction paper with their names on it to hold the drawings. I find they show respect to each other, and the blurt alerts are often unnecessary. The neatly labeled folders help me learn names if I forget. I like observation, because I feel that one can never get enough of observing his or her surroundings as a means of learning to draw, but imagination is our favorite. Everyone wants to have the most original and crazy drawing. I give them a minute to tell us what they drew. Overall, I’m finding that these 5 minutes have not amounted to much time lost from my art curriculum at all, because I’ve cut out the 5 minutes of chaos while everyone enters and gets their things together that I’ve seen in art rooms.

In what ways have you fine-tuned your art of teaching over time?

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